My sister called me from Yellowstone the day before I was to board the train to tell me that the government shutdown meant that the park would be closed to visitors, effectively scuttling my trip. I have always thought that puerile Tea Party nonsense was damaging to the country as a whole, but this time it was personal.

I was attending the New Atlantic Booksellers fall trade show when I got the call, so I had to quickly cancel all my hotel reservations, my lens rental, and of course the train. One bag had been checked ahead on Amtrak. They had already sent it on an earlier train – no one said they would do that – and they were totally incapable of locating the bag. The baggage department did not know which train was carrying it, when it would arrive in Chicago, or when it would make its way to Whitefish. A rude fellow in Philly answered my query about which train by saying “It’s gone!” and hanging up. Chicago said they would track it down and call me back. They didn’t. A guy on the Amtrak customer service phone tried to help but admitted that they had no system beyond the tags for tracking bags. When I questioned that from a security standpoint, he called it a “side issue.” It finally ended up all the way out in Whitefish, Montana. The attendant there said he would check it back to Philly on the next train, but that was a week ago. It’s a three day ride. (Update: the day after I posted this, I got a call from Amtrak saying my bag was in Philly. They treated it as lost luggage, so injury was not added to insult by being charged shipping fees.)

My friend Duke had his trip to Acadia National Park snafued as well, so he took the time off to go to upstate NY for some waterfall shooting. He had for several years spent the first week in October taking a photo seminar in the Adirondacks, so he thought it would be a good substitute. After three days of dealing with hotels, luggage bozos, and other issues, I decided to join him in Ithaca for two days.

The weather predictions were suspect, but the two days served up perfect conditions for fall shooting – not cold, not too warm, not sunny, but not dark overcast either. Very little wind blew, and the only moisture came from the rock walls around us. Life gave us sour citrus, so we crushed and sweetened.

I arrived in Ithaca around lunchtime Thursday to find Duke snoozing in his car in the parking lot at Buttermilk Falls. Duke’s back gives him problems, so we parked a car at each end of the gorge so that the walk would be downhill.  It’s also the most efficient way to cover a narrow ravine, since you don’t double back over the same ground.

By nature a portrait photographer, I just love looking through a lens at the world. My cousin Jack is an accomplished nature shooter, so I always felt I could never produce work like his and didn’t try. Yellowstone would have been my first serious wildlife shoot, and I was looking forward to spending a week doing nothing but honing my skills.

Duke shoots nature and macro. Some architecture. Never people if he can help it. He claims not to even like people very much, belied by his friendly manner and his ability to attract loquacious strangers rivaling mine. I have learned a great deal from him about shooting nature; we go out to Longwood Gardens about once a month and capture the flora close up.

Last week was the first time, however, that I had spent serious time photographing waterfalls. I grew up in a swampy area so flat that you could not find a spot that you could place a marble and it would move. The local river flowed so slowly that it was called the Tar. Aside from a trip to the Delaware Water Gap a few years ago, where our camera club spent an hour or two shooting Childs Park and Dingmans Falls, I hadn’t spent much time on it. I had only recently ditched my journalist’s tripod and grip head for some serious landscape gear – an ash wood Berlebach with a 55mm ball head.

It always pays to shoot with someone who knows what they are doing, not so that you can ask incessant questions or get free lessons, but so you can observe. So much of photography is about pace, about knowing how to evaluate a scene, and knowing when to cut bait. Our actual methods differ. I bracket, and he does not. He uses neutral density filters, while I polarize. He chimps, but I just check every once in a while to make sure nothing is wonky. We worked our way methodically down Buttermilk Creek, using the afternoon to carefully frame and capture the variety of falls there.

Buttermilk Falls State Park, Ithaca NY
Duke hard at work.
Duke hard at work.

The next day, we used Google Maps, the Photographers Ephemeris, and the Cornell website to chart an excursion to the lower Cascadilla Gorge, which runs spectacularly through the campus, dropping 400 feet in less than a mile. We positioned our cars, and when we walked to the gate to enter the gorge, we found out that access was prohibited because of falling debris hazards from a construction project. The Cornell website had not a word about this. We went back to the bottom and shot the falls at the bottom of the cascade, but they were not spectacular.

Cascadilla Gorge, Cornell University
Cascadilla Gorge, Cornell University

We took off for Watkins Glen without eating lunch, and time lost in Ithaca was time well used there. The canyons of the west are enormous and brightly colored, but eastern glens have their own charms. One still gets to marvel at what a stream can cut out of its way over time. The relative scale is the same, but the balance between intimacy and grandeur in the gorge at Watkins Glen transcends mere size. Flora and fauna are an afterthought in the great canyons of the west, but they coexist in the more modest confines of this ravine. The color palette is cooler, and the detail crisper.

Watkins Glen
Watkins Glen Ravine
Falls at Watkins Glen
Falls at Watkins Glen

Sadly, because of the paucity of hotel rooms in the area during leaf peeping season, I had to bolt before sunset in order to make it back to Philly by bedtime.

It wasn’t Yellowstone, but with great company, good scenery, and new challenges in photography, this Finger Lakes falls outing suited me just fine.